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Lawsuit Argues That Florida Mandate To Physically Reopen Schools Is 'Unconstitutional'

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C.M. GUERRERO
/
Miami Herald
The Florida Education Association says, in a new lawsuit, that the order to physically reopen schools to all students for five days a week is unconstitutional.

A Broward County public school teacher who spent three weeks on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma battling COVID-19 is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a state order to physically reopen schools to all students for five days a week starting next month.

The lawsuit filed Monday morning in Miami by the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union, argues the recent order from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is unconstitutional.

  

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The state’s governing document includes particularly strong language guaranteeing the right to “safe” public education and ensuring locally elected board members maintain authority over the public schools in their counties.

Stefanie Miller, 53, the 22-year veteran of Broward schools with asthma, said she contracted COVID-19 in March. After spending 21 days on a ventilator, the second-grade teacher at Fox Trail Elementary is recovering at home now, while continuing physical and occupational therapy.

“It’s a long journey. I don’t wish this on anyone,” Miller said during a virtual news conference led by the teachers’ union on Monday afternoon. “I, of course, want to go back to teaching, but it needs to be safe.”

Another local plaintiff is Mindy Festge, 51, a Miami-Dade teacher who has worked for the district for nearly three decades. Her husband is also a teacher, and their son is immunocompromised.

DeSantis said he hasn’t seen the lawsuit but defended his administration’s stance for schools to reopen during a news conference in Orlando on Monday.

“We see the problems that have already developed not having kids have access to the mentorship and the in-person instruction,” he said. “We don’t want folks to fall behind, and we really, really want to focus on the best interest of our students and giving parents the maximum amount of choices to be able to make the best decision that they can.”

“If a parent has a child who may have underlying conditions, of course they should be able to opt for virtual. … And the same with employees,” DeSantis said.

In a statement, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran argued his July 6 executive order offers families a necessary choice regarding whether to attend school in person or virtually.

The order also included flexibility for districts to receive funding that might otherwise be threatened if schools need to close or change their educational strategies due to the fluid nature of the pandemic. Corcoran said if the union’s complaint is successful, that funding would be in jeopardy.

“The FEA frequently states that schools are underfunded, and if this frivolous, reckless lawsuit succeeds it will eliminate these funding guarantees — completely contradicting their normal outcry,” Corcoran said in the statement.

A spokesperson for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is also named in the complaint, said in an e-mail that the county does not comment on pending litigation.

South Florida school districts leaders have already asserted their authority to keep school buildings closed until COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and other measures are under control. The Broward and Palm Beach county school districts are planning to begin the school year fully online, and Miami-Dade intends to do the same unless conditions change drastically between now and the first day of school in late August.

Read the full lawsuit here: